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A STORY ABOUT A REAL MAN                                                                   277
"Well, how's it going, maestro?" Kapustin asked when
he met him.
In answer Meresyev raised his thumb. He did not
exaggerate. He was making progress, slow, perhaps, but
sure; and the most ^important thing was that he ceased to
feel in the plane like a weak rider mounted on a fleet
and spirited steed. His confidence in his own skill returned
to him, and this, as it were, was conveyed to the plane,
and the latter, like a living thing, like a horse that feels
a good rider on its back, became more obedient, and
gradually revealed to Alexei all its flying qualities.
Long ago, in his boyhood, Alexei went out to learn to
skate on the early smooth, translucent ice that formed in
the inlet of the Volga where he had lived. Actually,
he had no skates; his mother could not afford to buy
him a pair. The blacksmith, whose washing his mother
used to do, made him, at her request, a pair of small
wooden blocks with thick wire runners and holes at the
With the aid of string and bits of wood, Alexei strapped
these blocks to his old and patched felt boots. On
these he went to the river, on to the thin, yielding, melo-
diously creaking ice. All the boys in the neighbourhood
of Kamyshin were sliding to and fro with shouts of de-
light, dashing along like little devils, racing each other,
and hopping and dancing on their skates. Their antics
looked easy, but as soon as Alexei stepped on to the ice
it seemed to slip from under him and he fell painfully
on his back. He jumped to his feet at once, fearing to
let his playmates see that he had hurt himself. He tried
to skate again, and to avoid falling on his back he bent
his body forward, but this time he fell on Ms nose. He
jumped to his feet again and stood for a while on Ms
trembling legs, trying to think how it happened, and
watching the other lads to see how they skated. He knew
now that he must not bend his body too far forward, nor
must he bend back. Trying to keep Ms body ^upright, he
took several steps sideways and fell on Ms side; and so
he fell únd got up over an4 over again TOtil siroset,